The other night, in the early evening I was walking my dogs by the lake and the rising moon caught my eyes. The sky was a clear, deep cloudless blue, dotted with the twinkling lights of stars and planes, and there in the middle, a glorious , glowing moon. It felt magical and mysterious. It made me think of the wise men who saw the rising star in the sky and followed it. I imagined being in the middle of a dry and arid land, seeing such a brilliant sight in the sky and letting it guide me. What about those wise men? They didn’t just look up in the sky, turn to each other and say “hey, it’s a nice night, let’s go for a walk.” They were present in that moment enough to realize that God was shining into their lives.
What would you do if I said to you right now that I had a divine message that we were supposed to follow a star I had seen to go where God wanted us to go? Would you join me? Honestly, probably not. If I was serious, you might question my sanity. Now, I’m not asking you to follow a star and I don’t think God is either, but I do believe that God is inviting us to live as faithfully as the wise men in our own way. I believe that God does want us to be like the magi in their willingness to go boldly into the world looking for and encountering God, to live full contact life with God. What would it take to be so inspired that we got up and followed a star to see Jesus? What are we missing out on that could lead us to come face to face with God in our lives?
A popular play and movie this time of year is A Christmas Carol. It is a particularly interesting story. Scrooge is visited by a series of ghosts who reveal things to him about his life and future. Do you remember when the Ghost of Christmas Past has just paid a very discomforting visit to Ebenezer Scrooge? Clearly the old miser is shaken by the ordeal. But when he awakens from his sleep, does he take the message to heart?. No, he simply dismisses it by saying: Bah, humbug, it wasn’t real. “Just a bit of last night’s undigested beef,” he says to himself. Did he have a vision to be taken to heart or simple indigestion? When we experience the sacred, do we sometimes mistake it for something other than what it is? Like something strange has gotten into our system and we’re just waiting for it to settle? Encounters with the holy can be unsettling, especially in a world that can seem so God-less.
I used to think about God as a being far away, distant, separate from my life. I thought about how I had heard that God was in heaven looking down at the earth. I wondered, am I just like a little ant in God’s eyes? But over time I came to understand things differently. The message of Christmas is that God is with us. God is not far away, but more present and intimate than any other being I could imagine. I don’t have to follow signs to find God somewhere else. God is right here.
Recently, Pastor Ben and Pastor Jane and I have been talking about different views of God and the world. We were noticing that there has been a shift among some theologians from an emphasis on God’s separateness from the world to seeing God in the world. Jane spoke of this in her sermon last Sunday. She said that “the traditional understanding of Jesus has focused Christianity’s attention away from life here and now.” She continues talking about an understanding of salvation that says “We are not saved by what we believe about God in order to spend eternity to win heaven, but by living in an awareness of God’s moment by moment presence with us and grappling with what it means to live faithfully as members of God’s family here and now.” That is a good description of what I mean when I say we are called to live full contact life with God. God is with us, but even so we can choose not to see or be present with God. We can keep God as a nice idea or a distant father figure, or we can be star followers, manger seekers who will not let anything stand in our way of seeing God face to face. Embracing that kind of life may take a little more faith, a little more trust than we feel comfortable with, because after all, how do we really know when we have seen the face of God?
You could say, if I had been there at Bethlehem that night I would have seen and I would have understood. I would have known it was the Christ child. I would have known that God is in the world and in my life and I would believe. But we are stuck here in this time and place. We don’t know for certain that we have encountered the divine this Christmas. But take a moment to look back on this holiday season. What hints of the sacred did you see and hear? When you went out to do your shopping, did you see only hordes of people in the stores, or did you notice the worried expressions on some of their faces—worried because they don’t know how they are going to make ends meet. Did you offer them a smile or an encouraging nod? What did you hear this Christmas? Did you hear only the blast of music and carols, or did you hear the silent sighs of the lonely who may be dreading Christmas because it accentuates their loneliness, and did you reach out to them? And in the midst of the sounds of honking horns and people arguing over parking places, did you hear faint sounds of laughter coming from Church missions projects because you furnished food and toys for families and children?
So often what you see and what you hear is not dependent upon the event but upon you. If you did in fact hear the cry from the lonely, the laughter of poor children, then, and only then, might you have noticed the events that took place in Bethlehem that night thousands of years ago. If you lacked that spiritual seeing and hearing then you probably would have been with the 99% who were present but who saw or heard nothing out of the ordinary. They were not living full contact life. God comes to us but we have to be willing to put ourselves out there and encounter God too.
If we use the full-contact sport analogy, it takes more than just showing up and wearing the jersey. You’ve got to get in the game. Faith is not just about believing, it is about acting like you believe. At Christmas time we talk a lot about peace, love and hope. That all sounds nice but making peace, love and hope a reality is hard work. We can pray for peace, but if we are not willing to also go out and be reconcilers, then there will be no peace. We can talk about love, but if we don’t show love to others and choose to accept love shown to us, then all that talk is empty. In a world where there is so much fear, injustice, pain and loss, it is a miracle to me that each of us still decides to get out of bed each morning, but we do, and that choice is a sign of hope. Hope takes work. It takes believing that life is good and making it so. God is not just a god of the heavenly hereafter. God is god of the here and now. We can celebrate Christmas and move on or we can live every day as a Christmas day, an Emmanuel experience, God with us.